This weekend, I watched one of the most deeply conservative movies I’ve seen in a very long time. At its heart, it’s a movie about a boy becoming a man — and becoming that man through ancient forms of tradition and ritual that are disguised behind the modern frame of the unconventional, accidental family.
The movie is called “Peanut Butter Falcon,” and it’s earned buzz in large part because it stars Zack Gottsagen, a young man with Down syndrome. Gottsagen plays Zak, a kid living in a nursing home because his disabilities are too severe for independent living and he has no family to care for him. A young nursing-home worker named Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) takes a special interest in Zak, but his life is dreary and dull. Zak spends his evenings rewatching old videos of his hero, a professional wrestler with a great southern rasslin’ name, “Saltwater Redneck.”
Zak longs to escape the home, find Saltwater Redneck, and train at his wrestling school. After repeated failed attempts, he finally flees the home (clad only in his underwear) and ultimately connects with Tyler (Shia LeBeouf), a lost soul on the run after he destroyed a rival’s crab pots (the movie is set in the Outer Banks). Soon enough, they’re on a handmade raft drifting down the waterways to the South. Tyler wants to go to Florida, while Zak is focused on meeting his wrestling hero.
The beauty of this movie is that you quickly understand that while it was designed as a vehicle for Gottsagen, it’s not about Down syndrome. For Zak, it’s about manhood, and it’s about manhood in a deeply traditional sense. It communicated three profound truths.
First, a man needs his journey. This is the most obvious of the themes. When Tyler agrees to lead Zak to Saltwater Redneck’s wrestling school, he tells him they’re going to have “stories.” They launch their own heroic journey, complete with narrow escapes, wild twists, and irresponsible fun. And at each new step in the story, you can see Zak come to greater life. You can see him walk in new confidence.
The brushes with disaster and his courageous responses start to define him. They’re part of the story that he tells about himself. They’re markers laid down in a life that provide a man with the confidence that he can meet a challenge.
Literature about modern manhood often urges fathers and young men to seek out their own heroic journeys. Life is comfortable. Life is safe. Yet there is something inside most men that rebels against comfort and safety. That’s an impulse that should be nurtured and cultivated — even celebrated — not denied and suppressed.
Second, a man needs his strength. There is a moment in the film that encapsulates the way a therapeutic society and mindset can sap a man of his confidence. Eleanor has been desperately searching for Zak and finally finds him in seemingly appalling condition — dirty and penniless, drifting down the Outer Banks in a homemade raft.
Immediately, her motherly instinct of care kicks in. She reminds him of his medication, of his need to eat to maintain his blood sugar. She’s concerned about the rules and regulations. She wants him off that raft.
You can watch Zak deflate in front of her eyes. Yes, he knows he’s vulnerable. He knows he needs medicine. But he’s also a new man, and he needs to hang on to that strength. He needs to see himself as the person he’d been the last few days, not the person he’d been for years in the nursing home.
At that point, Tyler intervenes, explaining (while they distract Zak by making him hold his breath underwater) that her compassionate concern is reminding him of his disability, just when he’s discovered strength he didn’t know he had. He’s wrestling with the question “Does Down’s define me?”
To her credit, Eleanor relents, demonstrating that her ethic of care is also grounded in courage and that she too can see how Zak has been transformed. From that point forward, she’s no longer a mother hen, she’s a partner-in-crime, as good moms of boys so often are.
Finally, a man needs his dad. The movie isn’t just Zak’s story, it’s Tyler’s as well, and LeBeouf creates a touching portrait of a hurting young man (he’d lost his older brother in a terrible accident) transformed into a loving, protective father figure. Zak finds his manhood, Tyler finds his purpose, and his purpose is in leading and loving Zak.
A young man’s restless energy shouldn’t be indulged or suppressed, it should be shaped and directed. A good father — or a good coach or a faithful mentor when no dad is present — is often like a ringleader. He’s not a bystander; he’s not only a participant in his son’s journey. He’s often the architect of the journey, and his job is to build his son’s strength even as he protects him from unacceptable harm.
There’s a moment — deep in the film — when Tyler feels as if he’s failed, that while he’s shepherded Zak to his destination, he can’t give Zak what he so desperately desires.. When there’s an unexpected twist that redeems a dark moment, you can see fatherly joy in Tyler’s face. The journey did indeed have a destination.
I’ve written quite a bit about masculinity in our modern age, and if there’s one thing that bears repeating time and again, it’s that in a modern, comfortable, prosperous, and therapeutic society, the cultivation of manhood no longer happens by default. Risk or adventure aren’t inherent to the experience of middle-class and upper-middle-class life.
A man doesn’t have to be strong, and he doesn’t have to be brave to live a prosperous, comfortable life. Energy and vitality — especially in our hyper-ordered schools — are often seen as disruptive, and parents and school officials will often expend much effort to calm everyone down. Young men grow up without facing defining moments. They don’t know who they are. They don’t know who they can be. They’re overly protected at best and scorned at worst.
But that’s often the wrong approach. Lead a boy in his adventure. Join him in his adventure. Help make him strong, and you’ll grant him a true sense of masculine purpose. In Peanut Butter Falcon, Zak became a man, and Tyler became a father. It was a beautiful sight to see.